How 15 Iconic American Beers Got Their Names

The United States got serious about beer in the 1800s, when many breweries introduced American lager-style beers to the masses. More than a hundred years later, some of these beers remain iconic, while others—like many newer, American craft beers—have been working on achieving that status. Here are the stories behind how 15 beers that define the U.S. beer scene got their names.

1. BUDWEISER

Today, Anheuser-Busch InBev is the largest brewery in the world, but it commenced with humbler beginnings. Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, ran the St. Louis brewery in the mid-1800s. Busch wanted to develop a light lager to contrast the rampant American dark beers. His friend Carl Conrad, a wine and liquor importer, had traveled to Budweis in what is now the Czech Republic and had tasted an incredible beer in a monastery there. Conrad took the idea back to St. Louis, and he and Busch decided on the name "Budweiser." In 1982, Bud Light (which is currently the best-selling beer in America) was introduced to the market.

2. SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER

Labels featuring a man holding a beer have been gracing barrels of brew for centuries, but its been synonymous in the States with a top crafty lager since 1984. Using his own money—and a family recipe for Louis Koch Lager that he found in an attic—Jim Koch founded Boston Beer Company in 1984. He named the dry-hopped lager after 18th-century Samuel Adams, who was a Founding Father, a governor of Massachusetts, a part of the American Revolution, and a brewer. (Like Alexander Hamilton, his varied resume deserves a musical.) According to a 2015 Brewer’s Association list, Boston Beer Co.’s the second best-selling craft brewery in the nation (next to Yuengling), and the fifth overall best-selling brewery.

3. MILLER LITE

We have a biochemist to thank for the advent of light beer. In 1967, Joseph L. Owades worked for Rheingold Brewery and discovered an enzyme that digested all of the starch, resulting in a beer label called Gablinger’s Diet Beer. Meister Brau of Chicago first manufactured the light beer until Miller Brewing bought Gablinger’s. In 1975 they changed the name to Miller Lite, and it became the first nationally distributed reduced-calorie beer.

4. COORS BANQUET

Adolph Coors liked the mountain waters of Colorado, so he established Coors there in 1873. Back in the late 1800s, miners in Golden, Colorado, worked hard every day and would gather after work and drink Coors beer in a celebratory banquet setting. In 1937, out of respect for those miners, the name Coors Banquet became official. Decades later, in 1981 the beer started national distribution. Besides the innovative stubby Banquet beers, Coors also became the forerunner of almost frozen cold-lagered beers (Coors Light), and they were one of the first breweries to delve into recycling, with the launch of their all-aluminum cans in 1959.

5. PBR

The Best family emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee and started Best and Company in 1844. Jacob Best Sr.’s daughter married Frederick Pabst, and in 1889, Pabst named the brewery after himself. They purchased about a million feet of silk ribbon, and workers hand-tied the ribbons around every bottle of their Best Select beer. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the beer won a blue ribbon award, and Best Select’s name switched to Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898. Today, the brand's mostly known as a hipster beer because of its cheap price.

6. ARROGANT BASTARD

This year, Escondido, California's Stone Brewing Company turns 20 years old, and one of their first beers, Arrogant Bastard, turns 19. Described as an “aggressive beer,” the strong ale set the standard for Stone’s West Coast-inflected IPAs and other hoppy beers. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner have turned the brewery with the scowling, horned gargoyle logo into the ninth largest craft brewery in the U.S. "It told me what its name was," Koch told Thrillist about the beer’s genesis. "We did not create it. I did not name it. It was already there. We were just the first lowly mortals to have stumbled upon it. Steve was the first to learn how to brew the beer that already was, and I was the first to realize what its name already was."

7. BLUE MOON BELGIAN WHITE

The Belgian Wit (meaning white, or wheat) beer that’s served with an orange wedge derived from baseball. In 1995, Keith Villa, who is one of only a few Americans with a Ph.D. in brewing, began brewing beer inside Denver’s Coors Field stadium. Called the Sandlot, it was the first brewery inside of a Major League stadium. Taking his experiences from Brussels (where he earned his doctorate), Villa brewed a Belgian beer called a Bellyslide, made with Valencia orange peels and coriander. The Coors-owned beer was in such high-demand that they needed a better name than Bellyslide. "So one day, when a bunch of us were tasting beers, our admin called out, 'You know, a beer that tastes this good comes around only once in a blue moon,'" their story reads. "And with that phrase ringing in our ears, the Blue Moon Brewing Company was born."

8. OLD STYLE

Like so many other breweries on the list, the brewery’s founder moved from Germany to the Midwest. While living in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gottlieb Heileman founded Golden Leaf Lager in the 1890s. Post-Prohibition, the company’s brewmaster came up with a strong brew for the company’s picnic and renamed the beer Old Style Lager Special Export. Old Style trickled into the Chicago market, and is noted for once sponsoring the Chicago Cubs (“Chicago’s beer”), and for its German brewing method called krausening—meaning to double ferment the beer.

9. SCHLITZ

August Krug was a homebrewer in 1849 and hired the recently emigrated, 20-year-old Joseph Schlitz to do his bookkeeping. Sensing an opportunity of a lifetime, Schlitz took over the brewery in 1856, when Krug died. Akin to Pabst, Schlitz renamed the company after himself. By 1902, Schlitz became the largest brewery in the world in crafting their American lager beer. In 1911, Schlitz was the first brewer to create the brown bottle design (to avoid spoiling), and decades later in 1956, they introduced the “tall boy” 16-ounce can, something that’s still prevalent in bars and stores today.

10. SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE

Homebrewer Ken Grossman established the Chico, California, brewery in 1979 and named it for the nearby mountains where he loved to hike. A year later he started brewing the popular pale ale, using whole cone Cascade hops. According to the company’s website, Grossman dumped 10 batches of the ale before getting it right. The Pale Ale set the tone for today’s craft beer explosion, and more than 30 years later, Sierra’s one of the top three best-selling craft breweries in the U.S.

11. STROH’S

A German man named Bernhard Stroh settled down in Detroit in 1848, and started brewing pilsners like he had in his homeland. Stroh had originally named the brewery Lion’s Head Brewery, but his son, Bernhard Jr., changed the name to B. Stroh’s Brewing Company after Stroh’s death in 1902. Their lager formula won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and nearly a century later, in 1999, another ribbon-centric beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, purchased the brewery.

12. FAT TIRE AMBER ALE

Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan formed the Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery in 1991, but started brewing their flagship beer, the Belgian-flavored Fat Tire, a couple of years beforehand in a basement. The amber ale got its name from a European trip Lebesch took on a bicycle, or a “fat tire,” and the bike ended up being used as the company’s logo.

13. MICHELOB

In 1896, Adolphus Busch named his new lager after the then-Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) town of Michalovice. Michelob Light didn’t show up until decades later, in 1978, and the carb-reduced Michelob Ultra was invented in 2002.

14. COLT 45

Many people associate the malt liquor—a lager with a sweeter flavor—with longtime spokesman Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But when it was first created in 1963, the National Brewing Company named the beer after Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, who played for the football team from 1961 to 1970, with the jersey number 45. 

15. YUENGLING TRADITIONAL LAGER

David G. Yuengling immigrated to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, from Germany and established the company in 1829 as Eagle Brewery. When David’s son Frederick joined the team in 1873, the name changed to D.G. Yuengling and Son. The family didn’t gain popularity with their beers until 1933, when they introduced Winner Beer, in tandem with the repeal of Prohibition. Today, the beer’s so well-known in Philadelphia that when you’re at a bar and want a Yuengling, all you have to say is “lager” and the bartender will know what you mean.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

iStock/MarkSwallow
iStock/MarkSwallow

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of wine. Here, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma, spills some of the best. Here are a few things you might not know about wine.

1. Digital eyes are everywhere in today's vineyards.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like army bases—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. 

2. Modern vineyards also bury a lot of cow skulls. 

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. Ferocious foliage is a vintner's secret weapon.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. Roses in a vineyard are the wine country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. 

Vintners plant roses among their vines because the flowers get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. Birds of prey help protect the grapes.

Glasses of red wine and charcuterie
iStock/Natalia Van Doninck

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. Small bugs become big problems in wine tasting rooms.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bug-eating predators are fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. Wine needs to be filtered. 

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. (Unwanted compounds in the wine bind with the fining agents so they can be filtered and removed.) Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. Wine is ever so slightly radioactive (that's a good thing).

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. MRIs can determine the fine from the funk.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. Wines can be aged instantly.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?

iStock
iStock

Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep this weekend. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a “julep” was considered medicinal, “prescribed” for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up $1000. For nearly 15 years, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the pewter cup—and proceeds benefit the John Asher Memorial Scholarship Fund at Western Kentucky University.

“John Asher was the voice of Churchill Downs for 30 some odd years and he was so passionate about horse racing, about the Derby, and he was quite the historian," Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris told CNBC Make It. "He unexpectedly passed away last summer and we created this foundation in his name to continue a new generation of journalism students at his alma mater."

If you're looking to drop even more cash, there's also a $2500 version of the drink which comes in a gold cup with a silver sipping straw.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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